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The student news site of Kingwood Park High School

KP TIMES

The student news site of Kingwood Park High School

KP TIMES

Exchange program offers wide-ranging opportunities

Junior+Azy+Garcia+visits+a+castle+in+Germany+with+her+host+sister+during+her+short+term+trip+through+Rotary.+Photo+contributed+by+Azy+Garcia.
Junior Azy Garcia visits a castle in Germany with her host sister during her short term trip through Rotary. Photo contributed by Azy Garcia.

Overwhelming amounts of green immediately consumed junior Azy Garcia’s senses when she stepped off the plane in Frankfurt, Germany. The air was clean, and as she drove through the countryside, castles popped up every five miles on her way to the small town of Bärstadt, where she would be staying for the next month. 

I found out about the program in eighth grade and then ninth grade,” Garcia said. “I tried to do it because studying abroad is like my biggest dream.” 

Garcia participated in the short-term program, part of the Rotary Exchange Program, where she spent a month in Germany over the summer. The short-term program is non-academic, and the countries involved are mostly in the northern hemisphere to match up summers and time off. However, Germany was still in full swing for school, so Garcia got to experience going to school in a different country.

“You have a couple of classes that day and then right after you can just leave whenever,” Garcia said. “Then after school we would take the bus back home and then we would hang out for a day, and play.

She hopes to spend next year participating in the long-term program. The long term program is a full year, and includes 200 possible countries students can stay at through the Rotary Exchange program.  

“Their student comes here, we send them our student,” Club Youth Exchange officer of the Lake Houston area Rotary Exchange Program, and the district Secretary and communications chair, Susan Brodbeck said. “So most of the country chairs actually know each other. Rotary has various worldwide meetings either in Europe or North America. South America, you know, large conventions just devoted to youth exchange.”

Meet this year’s foreign exchange students
Varinthron Otarnwanna, junior
Varinthron Otarnwanna portrait
Varinthron Otarnwanna portrait

Home: Thailand 

Q: Have you been to America before? Why come back?

A: Yes, I've been to America before. I was actually born here,  and I lived here until I was like 11 or 12 before our family moved back to Thailand. And, I decided that I wanted to come back here because it's a great place, obviously, and it has seasons. You know, seasons exist. In Thailand it's just heat and humidity. So it's really nice here.

Q: Is there anything that you really want to do while you're here?

A: I would like to try out an escape room because I haven't done that before. Oh, I'm not really too sure. I never made a bucket list, but yeah, just explorer Kingwood.

Q: What’s the biggest difference coming back after all this time?

A: I think the biggest difference for me is that when I was a kid, every Sunday I'd go to like this Thai temple because we are Thai, and now that I'm back, I go there every Sunday and it's like the little kids I knew, they're all like, grown up now, and I'm just like, Whoa, that's, completely different.

Q: So how do the schools compare? Your school in Thailand and the school here?

A: Well, first off, the bell schedules are completely different. Like they do it here by Monday through Friday. Each day has its own schedule. But in Thailand,  my school, it was like day one through day five. So it was like if you were on day four and then you had the next day off as like a holiday, you'd come back and take day five instead of completely missing a Thursday or something.

Our school has definitely less kids, like way less kids. So you, you knew everybody in your grade, here I barely know anyone, which is completely different. Also, I think another major difference is the schools here has two stories of two different buildings, spread out. Our school is like the middle school and high school building. It was U-shape of four floors. 

Q: What do you like to do back home compared to here?

A: I'm not sure what you do here, but for us, it was at least the area where my school and my friends were. There was this really big shopping mall called Mega Bangna. And so it had everything. So a lot of times if you wanted to hang out or do a group project, you’d meet there because it was really easy to get there and it was a really big shopping mall or I'd go to a friend's house and hang out there.

 

Interviewed by Bailey Hall

Pei-Ting Hsieh, junior
Pei-Ting Hsieh portrait
Pei-Ting Hsieh portrait

Home: Taiwan

Q: Why did you want to become an exchange student?

A: Because my English is bad. In Taiwan English is very important, like when we go to college, we need to have a tes and English is 25%.

Q: What  expectations or stereotypes of the did you hear before coming to the US ? 

A: They said the school starts at 9:00 and ends at 3:00. They always say that and the movie they use locker room lockers, but they don't use it here.

Q: How was your first week?

A: I couldn't speak a lot of English,  it's weird and my (host) parents asked me things, I just said yes or no. I didn't know how to respond. 

 

Interview by Avery Stieke

Julia Planellas, sophomore
Julia Planellas portrait
Julia Planellas portrait

Home: Catalonia, Spain

Q: What are some places that you like to go here and back home?

A: I usually go to try new restaurants and like American food here and try the most American stuff that it can be here. So I usually hang out at parties with my friends like in their houses, pajama parties. They're so cute. And then go into for example, Chick-Fil-A that we don’t have in Spain. 

Q: What are some of your interests like?

A: I like to read, focus on myself, and I love to travel. So every time that I have a little bit of money, I try to travel.

Q: Where did you want to? And how did you become an exchange student?

A: Okay. My sister from Spain wanted to be a exchange student, but she couldn't do it because of COVID. The last summer, she was telling me that it's an amazing experience and I should have it. And she convinced me, and we started making all this.

Q: What were your expectations/stereotypes of the U.S. before you came here?

A: I was thinking ‘High School Musical'. It’s not high school musical, but it's still fun. I'm really happy. Like, for example, the pep rallies. I didn't expect that and it's so funny.

Q: What is one thing you had to tell people back home?

A: Maybe when I saw my first football game. I was so excited. I mean, this is my American experience. I had to tell everybody. I was like all the time saying the joke that I’m having my American experience and everything has to be perfect.

Q:What were your schools like back home?

A: They're so much more boring. Here they do a lot of things. Here there are huge schools, but in Spain there's so much smaller and it's like you are really focused on the work. Also while making friends and all that stuff but they, it's not that fun. There’s not a lot of fun activities. No cheerleaders. And for example, we don’t have newspapers and all that. It's just all normal subject, like English algebra.

 

Interview by Madlyn Glenn

The Rotary Exchange Program is completely volunteer based, and a non-profit organization. The program relies on Rotarians who are the adults who work to support the program and keep it working. There are approximately 1.2 million Rotarians all over the world. 

“It’s very, very rewarding for me and for them,” Brodbeck said. 

Everyone who works in the program has to go through criminal background checks, reference checks, and two tests to enter all to ensure the safety of the kids who participate in the program. The program is overseen by the United States Department of State. 

“So the idea is to make sure it’s safe for the kids,” Brodbeck said. “And that we follow the rules and we have to document everything and do all the things that we do.”

Students have 2-3 host families while in the long term program. They stay with their first host family from August to late December, and then stay with their second host family until April or until the end of their trip, depending on if there is a third host family lined up. If there is a third host family, they stay with them for the last two months.

We still keep in touch, which I think is really amazing,” Garcia said. “And host families, that’s like a special bond people have for life.

The program allows everyone involved to meet people from different backgrounds and cultures, and form unique relationships with people students wouldn’t otherwise have met. 

“You meet people from around the world,” Brodbeck said. “[On my birthday] my phone blew up with well-wishes from people all over the world that I’ve worked with over the 16 years.”

Students are encouraged to learn the language of whatever country they are going to once they get accepted, to help with the transition. 

“When you’re surrounded by a language, you will learn to speak it,” French teacher and long time supporter of the Rotary Exchange Program Beverley Randall said. “It’s what happened to us when we were babies. Our parents were speaking it and we learned it. So when you first get to a country, especially if it’s a language you didn’t study in high school at all, [the Rotary Exchange Program] will give you some basics before you go. You’ll figure out some context and you’re going to feel frustrated because probably about the first couple of months, you’re going to feel like you don’t know what to say or how to say it, and you’re going to be pointing and nodding, but it’ll all of a sudden it’ll start to come.”

Once students are there, they are expected to immerse themselves into the culture of the country they are staying in. 

“I think, broaden your horizons, get more broad minded and think outside the box and learn things and know that, okay, this, this is the way they do this in Belgium,” Brodbeck said. “And at first you might say, well, that’s not right, but if we teach the students to say, different is not necessarily right or wrong. It may be different, but that doesn’t make it wrong.”

All kids are provided with a Club Youth Exchange officer, and a rotary counselor who will check in with the student and host family once a month. 

Rotary stands out from the other programs because of the support it gives you once you get to the country you’re going to,” Randall said.

It’s a really life changing experience because you get to learn more not only about yourself, but a whole other culture and country. It also matures you and it can make you become more independent.

— Azy Garcia, junior

During the training leading up to the trip, students will get to meet with RoTexans — who are people who participated in the program in the previous years — to help know where they want to go, and what to expect once they are there. 

It’s a really life changing experience because you get to learn more not only about yourself, but a whole other culture and country,” Garcia said. “It also matures you and it can make you become more independent. Like if you were already independent enough, it really teaches you how to be more independent, especially since you’re away from your family.”

The program has a detailed application process. Students go to interest meetings throughout October and apply online, which includes an essay on why they should be chosen. Selected students will then be sponsored by their local Rotary club and meet for interviews. If they pass, they then go through an additional interview process at the district level. 

“[We look for] adaptability, service, flexibility, maturity, responsibility, you know, all those things that they’re going to have to take with them on their exchange,” Brodbeck said.

The long term program does not count as a year of high school towards a high school diploma. Students who participate will either need to complete classes over the summer to get ahead before the trip, or they will be graduating a year later. 

The cost for the long term trip is approximately $7,000. The program pays for room, board, and high school education abroad for the year. 

“We always tell parents, oh, don’t don’t worry, you’ll save money because you don’t have to have a car payment for that child,” Brodbeck said. “You don’t have to buy the entertainment for that child or feed that child or buy the insurance for that child.”

The Rotary Exchange Program works to push students to learn in a unique way, and see the world from outside of the United States.

“The more we understand about the world, and how people live in other cultures, we can see that the differences don’t matter,” Randall said. “And we can sometimes embrace those differences and bring them into our own lives, or learn how to accept differences as just that.  There are differences, but they don’t change whether or not we like or dislike a person.”

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